I gave up my IBM job to become an organic farmer—and learned a bitter truth

Ilwareed Online – Farmer removes husks from green gram at her farm on the outskirts of Ahmedabad, India

It was April 2004. I stood in the middle of the lush green field of moong (green gram) and looked around me. It was just before sunrise and the sky was turning a bright orange. The ground was damp and the leaves were shining with dew. My bare feet were muddy as I walked around gingerly, inspecting the plants. Around me were rows of chikoo trees and below a dense foliage of moong. At that point, I could not have asked for anything more. The moong plants, not more than two feet tall, had green pods hanging out. The pods were not yet ripe and there was a light fuzz growing on them. There was still some time before the harvest. I felt exhilarated. I stood watching the sun rise above the towering trees across the fence and slowly made my way back to the house, a white structure in the middle of this greenery. I could not believe that I was the owner of this land and that I was looking at my first crop as a farmer.

After I had paid the advance money for the land, I thought I would have some time to get familiar with farming. But Moru Dada, the broker who got us the land, had other ideas. He was keen that we plant moong at once. I was not prepared for this. I was still reading books and trying to figure out what we could sow and how we should go about it. Moru Dada was quite firm. He said the season was right for sowing moong and the best seeds were available in Surat in the adjacent state of Gujarat.

I was plunging headlong into something I was little prepared for. After all I had not even got the land transferred to my name and it had been only two months since I quit my corporate job. I realised that since I was keen on becoming a farmer, this was not a moment too soon. I made a quick trip to Surat and bought around 10 kilograms of moong. Moru Dada arranged to have our neighbour in the village, Baban Desai, help us on the land. He did not stay at the farm but came every day to help. Moru Dada rented his tractor to plough the land and quickly planted moong all over the place. The idea was that even if we did not get any harvest, we would still have some green cover which we could use to mulch the soil. I had started reading some books on organic farming and was picking up some stuff from the internet too. A few days later, we were overjoyed to see tiny green leaves. I had never seen moong growing before and was thrilled at the sight. It was the same thrill I had felt as a young boy when I saw the first of the hibiscus I had planted bloom at the Railway Quarters in Vile Parle in Mumbai.  I could not believe that I was the owner of this land and that I was looking at my first crop as a farmer. 

I was grateful to have taken Moru’s advice. The next thing Moru Dada wanted to do was spray some pesticide on the plants. He claimed that it would give a higher yield. This was something we did not want to do. We were clear that we would not use any chemicals and tried to explain it to him. He reacted as if we had suggested hara-kiri. It took a lot of convincing to ensure that Moru Dada and his friends did not use any chemicals on the farm. They refused to understand how crops could grow without sprays.

We tried our best to explain to them that nature would do her job even without us interfering with poisonous chemicals. There were moments when we felt that maybe they were right, especially since we did not have any experience and were relying on what we had read in books or what Meena had researched for a book on organic cotton.

Contrary to what everyone had told us, nature did her job and she needed no bribes to get the work done. Soon it was harvest time and we managed a respectable 300 kilograms. An awful lot of moong and with it a lot of confidence. Now I was certain the land was fertile and that it was possible to grow crops without chemicals. It was a major morale booster. It had been only five months since I quit my corporate job at IBM and I had a decent first crop. 

I was terribly excited as this was the first crop from the land, even before actually paying for it. It had been only five months since I quit my corporate job at IBM and I had a decent first crop. I felt the transition was promising— from microchips to moong. We distributed a large portion of the moong to friends, relatives, neighbours and anyone who remotely expressed an interest. Even after the extensive distribution, we were left with almost 200 kilograms and there was no option but to sell it off in the market.

Selling Moong

We had an early lesson in farming after the first moong harvest. I went to the local grocer in Goregaon, Mumbai, and asked if he would like to buy the moong from us. He examined the moong in detail, took some samples for his home and then a couple of days later offered to pay us Rs12 per kilo. We could not believe our ears for he was selling the same thing at Rs30 per kilo. Why this massive difference? He gave us some vague explanation of how he had to keep the inventory for some time and it did not work out otherwise. Besides he got his moong from the distributor at the same rate. We were in for another harsh lesson in farming. The price we paid at the local grocer never indicated what the farmer got for growing the crop.

We tried to reason with him that this was completely organic and we did not use any pesticides or chemicals. He looked blankly at us and said, “So what? Does this make your moong any different?” We gave up and decided that maybe we needed to go to the right market if we expected to get some appreciation for our organic produce. We contacted a vendor who specialized in organic food and offered our crop to them. They were very gracious and offered to pay Rs17 per kilo since it was organic but we would have to deliver it to their godown.  The price we paid at the local grocer never indicated what the farmer got for growing the crop. 

With nothing else on hand and no idea what we could do with the load of moong we had, we decided to go ahead. We were also worried the moong would spoil, so we reluctantly agreed and went and delivered the lot. It was only after a month later and numerous calls to the person concerned that we managed to get paid for it. When the money arrived it was calculated at Rs16 per kilo. I immediately called back and was informed that our moong had to be cleaned further and hence they had cut a rupee from the original agreed price. We quietly pocketed the money, thanking our stars that we had at least got more than the local grocer. We were in for a shock the next month when we got the rate list from the same organisation, which listed our organic moong at Rs38 per kilo.

So that was the bitter truth. All the sowing, watering, weeding, harvesting and cleaning are done at the farm. The cost of labour, seeds, water and electricity is borne by the farmer. But the bulk of the profits go to the trader who just packs the material and charges a bomb from unsuspecting city dwellers.

Excerpted with the permission of Penguin Random House India from Moong over Microchips Adventures of a Techie-Turned-Farmer by Venkat Iyer. We welcome your comments at [email protected].

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